Edmonton Oilers defenseman Evan Bouchard is having a fine first full season in the NHL. With 38 points in 72 games and a plus-2 rating, the sky is the limit for the 22-year old from Oakville, ON. Yet, there’s always a learning curve for young defensemen, and the premier players are the ones that are able to respond well to adversity.
Bouchard had one of the worst outings of his career in a 9-5 loss to the Calgary Flames on March 26 which included blown coverages, lack of attention to detail, and not enough urgency in dangerous situations. It seems that game was a wake-up call because not only did he have one of the best offensive games of his career in the game that followed, but by the eye-test, he also added a new bag of tricks that have tightened up the defensive side of his game.
Recalling Bouchard’s Rough Night Against the Flames
The whole Oilers squad had an up and down game against the Flames on March 26. Bouchard himself was on for three goals against that were the result of a lackadaisical defensive effort. He started the night on the right track with an assist on Derick Brassard’s goal only 30 seconds into the game, but it went downhill from there.
In the second period, with the game tied 4-4, Johnny Gaudreau beat Bouchard in a footrace for a clear chance to the net. The Oilers defenseman got caught puck watching, and the puck was centered to a wide-open Matthew Tkachuk — Bouchard fell — and Tkachuk had a free lane to tuck the puck past goaltender Mikko Koskinen.
Trailing 6-5 In the third period, Bouchard got caught along the boards and lost a puck battle (or didn’t realize there was a puck battle in the first place) to Tkachuk. The puck was centered in the slot and Elias Lindholm made it 7-5. Later in the third, the puck was once again centered in the slot and Bouchard attempted to intercept the pass with his backhand, it bounced off the blade of his stick and landed onto the tape of Dillon Dube and he roofed it to make it 9-5. All in all, it was a rough night for the youngster on Hockey Night in Canada. But the question was whether he would bounce back, or would his confidence be shot after an emotional loss?
There’s a Noticeable Change in Bouchard’s Play
It looks like he learned a lesson from his Alberta rivals, as he’s improved on the little defensive nuances that are important to winning hockey games. You’d have to imagine that assistant coach Dave Manson pulled the youngster aside and used video from the game against the Flames as a learning tool to point out the lapses in defensive coverage.
In the game against the Flames, he had a 41 percent Corsi (CF%) rating, and in seven games since then, he’s averaged 53.1 CF%, including a 55.26 CF% against the powerhouse Colorado Avalanche last Saturday night. Also, according to Natural Stat Trick, the metric SF% is the percentage of total shots while a player is on the ice. In the last seven games since playing the Flames, Bouchard has responded with an average of 56 SF%, including a ridiculous 73.3 SF% against the Los Angeles Kings.
However, what the advanced stats do not show is his willingness to be aggressive and engage physically — something that he’s been criticized for throughout the season. There also isn’t a metric to see one’s urgency and ability to recognize and react to dangerous scoring chances against. In seven games, it’s recorded that he’s only delivered six hits, but it’s noticeable that he’s not making it an easy ride for forwards entering the zone. Bouchard is getting a glove or a stick, or even a slight bump on opposing players, something that wouldn’t normally be credited as one.
On several occasions when opposing forwards skated in on him in 1-on-1 scenarios, he’s attempting to get even a slight piece of the opposing player to impede them. That said, it didn’t bode well for him against the Avalanche when he was overaggressive and took down the Colorado forward, resulting in a penalty with under three minutes remaining in the game. Even though the call was iffy, it’s rare to use “Evan Bouchard” and “overaggressive” in the same sentence. It’s a positive sign that he’s trying to implement physicality into his game.
Related: 4 Takeaways From Oilers’ Shootout Loss in Thriller Against Avalanche
His defensive plays have also been noticeable over the last stretch of games. In the 2-1 overtime win against the San Jose Sharks, Bouchard made key clears in front of the net to prevent rebound attempts to keep the game tight. It appears since his defensive blunders against the Flames, he’s had his head on a swivel and there’s extra attention to detail in covering opposing players in front of the net.
Bouchard’s Offensive Game Continues to Flourish
It’s not groundbreaking news of what he brings offensively, considering his shot alone has a nickname (Bouch-Bomb), but he played one of the best games of his career in an important battle against the Kings, a team the Oilers could face in the opening round of the playoffs. He contributed to all three goals with a goal and two assists, scoring his 10th goal of the season. Also, The Hockey Writers’ Brian Swane tweeted that at age 22, Bouchard is the youngest Oilers defenseman to score 10 goals in a season since Paul Coffey scored 40 at age 22 in 1983-84.
He’s had bumps in the road in his first full NHL season, but his 38 points rank him 28th in the NHL in points by defensemen. As well, he has the most 5-on-5 points among NHL players aged 22 and younger, and to top it off, according to ArHockeyStats, they’ve felt he has been the best defenseman on the Oilers this season.
It speaks volumes about Bouchard’s character that he hasn’t faltered after an emotional loss, especially down the playoff stretch. The former 10th overall draft pick collected a $212,000 bonus for scoring his 10th goal of the season. The way he continues to improve, it’s only a matter of time before he’s making that type of money on a weekly basis.